Monstrous Body Horror in Transition: Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt and Jeanette Winterson’s Frankisstein

By Emrys Donaldson

When I consider being pregnant myself, I imagine Sigourney Weaver from the original Alien: a wet head emerging, its teeth bared, as I scream and scream. What for others may evoke joy and anticipation for me evokes fear. In Gretchen Felker-Martin’s 2021 horror novel Manhunt, pregnancy itself becomes a kind of body horror as testosterone turns people into sex-crazed zombies bent on cannibalism. A fertility specialist explains the process to a wealthy patient: “When they [the changed men] impregnate a victim, the baby is XY. No variation. It undergoes viral metamorphosis in utero and eats its way out of the mother at three or four months. A few hours later, it can hunt for itself. In a year, it’s sexually mature.” Gossip tells of “a woman in Vermont whose boy twins had eaten their way out of her.” In this science-fiction world, pregnancy is not only dangerous for all the usual reasons, but also because a zombified fetus might eat its way through the abdominal wall (just like in Alien). Abortion access saves lives. To abort, in this world, is to avoid being eaten from the inside out. Yet in the post-apocalyptic world of Manhunt, as in the twenty-first century United States, abortion access varies widely and depends on the pregnant person’s financial and social resources.

Under-resourced people undergo the brunt of pregnancy-related collateral damage in Manhunt, just as they do in real life. In the novel, a wealthy “bunker brat” impregnates a dozen women with her zombified boyfriend’s sperm to see if she will be safe trying to have a baby with him. Eleven women die; one gives birth to a girl infant. Yet, as seems to be the result of abortion bans everywhere, no one keeps close track of what happens to the infant once alive: one of the characters tries to convince herself, with no knowledge to support it, that “someone must have taken her. Kept her safe.” The desperate desire for a perfect infant at any cost leads, during the novel’s climax, to the death of the bunker brat at the hands of her wannabe baby daddy as well as the annihilation of the bunker, which was previously a walled garden for the wealthy. Class-based critique underpins the novel’s attitudes toward reproductive rights, as a safe pregnancy is a privilege only afforded to the richest people remaining.

Monstrosity tied to bodily levels of testosterone echoes contemporary intra-community queer anxiety around expressions of masculinity. In both Manhunt and the real world, to be a man, or to want to be a man, is to reckon with one’s own capacity for harm: one’s own capacity for violence. In the novel, this anxiety echoes through several trans characters. Like abortion, this anxiety is deeply intertwined with fears around bodily autonomy. A trans guy fears detransitioning when he loses access to Hormone Replacement Therapy; trans women unable to access orchiectomies in the post-apocalypse fear loss of access to HRT and turning into monsters. A cis woman with undiagnosed polycystic ovarian syndrome locked inside a fictionalized version of J.K. Rowling’s manse catches the mysterious zombification illness and kills everyone trapped inside with her. In Jeanette Winterson’s Frankisstein, fears around pregnancy are intertwined with anxiety about infant and child death. A fictionalized version of Mary Shelley mourns the loss of several children in early childhood: “Would there were no babies, no bodies; only minds to contemplate beauty and truth. If we were not bound to our bodies we should not suffer so.” The character ties her experience of grief directly to her experience of embodiment—a sentiment with which some of the characters in Manhunt would likely agree. Shelley composes her famous Frankenstein in one main thread of the book; in another, a doctor and trans man, Ry, deals with ethical qualms around working for an erratic startup billionaire. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein walks out of Shelley’s writing and into her life, where he behaves like an unwanted child. He says, “I am the thing that cannot die—and I cannot die because I have never lived.” Though Shelley will never have to grieve his loss, she also will never escape his presence. As he tells her, “The monster once made cannot be unmade. What will happen to the world has begun.” If he cannot die, she cannot kill him to remove a so-called monster from the world. These lines echo through both Manhunt and Frankisstein: monsters, set in motion, will wreak havoc.

Yet who counts as a monster? Both books deal with the idea of transness as other, as perceived monstrosity. In Manhunt, TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) form a vigilante army that give themselves bad DIY “XX” tattoos and murder trans women in the street. In Frankisstein, the trans character Ry is misgendered and assaulted by other characters. Gretchen Felker-Martin, through her expertise in trans cultural production and horror criticism, has a far firmer grasp on how to delve into the interstices of transness, monstrosity, and body horror than does Jeanette Winterson. Several years ago, during my initial read of Frankisstein, I left the book unfinished because of the hamfisted handling of the protagonist’s gender journey. Upon re-read, I see it as a knowledge gap. Winterson seems to lack the language, or patience, to write a nuanced trans character. Ry doesn’t have any real agency. He also experiences an unusual and narratively unwarranted quantity of transphobic violence for simply existing. One of the secondary characters in Frankisstein characterizes a sexual relationship with him this way: “gorgeous boy/girl, whatever you are, you had a sex change [. . .] That attracts me. How could it not? You are both exotic and real.” Instead of delving into the protagonist’s response to this level of chaser cringe, Winterson spends the following pages detailing sexual mechanics.

Writing trans characters without agency, as Winterson does, removes their bodily autonomy. Too, it reinforces negative (and untrue) tropes about them and, by extension, real trans people: that we will find love only by hiding parts of ourselves, that we will be unable to anticipate or avoid physical assault, that we must accept powerlessness in good humor. However, writing them with agency, as Felker-Martin does, is a powerful act of solidarity. A trans guy character in Manhunt exhorts another character to care: “Every dyke and freak and faggot in the world is my fucking problem, and they’re yours too.” This sentiment reverberates through ideas of collectivity, community care, and building power that echo in all struggles for bodily autonomy, whether that’s access to HRT, puberty blockers, or abortion. It’s all our fucking problem.

Emrys Donaldson is an Assistant Professor of English at Jacksonville State University whose work has recently appeared in LitHub and Electric Literature. Read more at

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